Better Angels of Our Nature

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In Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, he closed by appealing to the “better angels of our nature”. His call to action was intended to encourage his fellow citizens to act in the best interest of others. As I watch the coverage of hurricanes, forest fires, and flooding, I’m always inspired by seeing neighbors (and strangers) helping one another. And, it started me thinking about how these same types of actions can impact our work lives. How does helping a colleague impact the giver along with the receiver? What are the impacts these actions can have at work?     

Today, researchers in a wide variety of disciplines describe behaviors that focus on making a difference in the lives of others through work, as prosocial behaviors. For example, a meta-analysis of 168 studies with more than 51,000 employees found that an employee’s focus on making a difference in others’ lives mattered as much in performance evaluation and promotions, as actual job performance (Podsakoff et al., 2014). Findings from other studies show:

  • Employees who spend time helping others solve problems can enhance their abilities to solve their own problems, departing from previous research that held that knowledge sharing only helped the recipient (Shah et al., in press).

  • In a meta-analysis of 38 studies and 3,611 work units, a higher level of prosocial behaviors resulted in significantly higher productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction—and lower costs and employee turnover (Podsakoff et al., 2014).

  • The most powerful motivational force to reinforce prosocial behaviors is to receive feedback directly from the beneficiaries of their actions, including how the work benefited them (Grant & Hofmann, 2011).

  • Subsequent experiments suggested that messages with personal examples of these benefits, along with a message from the leader of how they fit the overarching vision, were even more motivating (Belle ́, 2013; Grant, 2012a).

  • Other research suggests that understanding how an employee’s actions benefit others buffers them from emotional exhaustion (Grant & Campbell, 2007; Grant & Sonnentag, 2010).

  • The emotional benefits also extend outside the workplace. On days when employees perceive they made a difference at work, others notice that they are happier and more positive when they get home (Sonnentag & Grant, 2012).

Our jobs and organizations give us many opportunities to help others – whether it’s working together to solve problems, helping with a task, showing compassion, doing an act of kindness, or simply taking time to listen to one another. It begins with an understanding that all of our actions matter. It begins with tuning our attention toward helping…and acting on that desire. Feeling that we have made a difference is one of the most meaningful parts of work life. In other words, everyone benefits when we “appeal to the better angels of our nature” of which Lincoln spoke.  How will you help someone today?